Now it is my turn to apologize for my slow reply to your last letter! As you know, this past month has been eventful for me. I moved to a new apartment in Seattle, and I also have been traveling a bit to look at different graduate school programs. The verdict is in: this fall, I will be going to Yale Divinity School to study for a Master of Arts in Religion with a concentration in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. I am so thrilled by my acceptance and the merit scholarship I was offered. And I want to thank you—and EEWC—for being such a great community to me the past year as I have journeyed in all things feminist. I would not be able to achieve my dreams without the love of the people who support me and work alongside me toward similar hopes for our world. I am so grateful.
And I also want to celebrate your health, too, as you passed the one-year marker as a cancer survivor. I am so glad that you are conscious not to “burn the midnight oil” too much; taking care of our bodies is so important. I know you are balancing so many tasks—from editing Christian Feminism Today to updating the EEWC website to providing support and encouragement to many people! I am glad that in the midst of your work load that you prioritize yourself and take care of your health—you are setting a good example for me and others. I am already thinking about school next fall and how I will balance intense studies with rest, play, and good self-care. I know that balance is so important, so that we can sustain our work long-term. And, as you know, I am not always good at self-care! But, I feel encouraged that I am learning its importance.
Women, Men, and Pride
I wanted to begin this letter by letting you know that I have been thinking a great deal about that firstarticle you linked in your last post (the BBC article that talked about women reportedly confessing the sin of pride more than men). It so happened that when I got your letter I was reading Feminist Theory and Christian Theology by Serene Jones. (Dr. Jones used to be a professor at Yale Divinity School, and now she is at Union Theological Seminary.) Her book gave me a news lens for seeing some of the important issues in Reformed theology, particularly the weighty idea of “pride equals sin” within that tradition.
Jones explains that Calvin, similar to many preachers today, focused on pride as being one of the most damaging aspects of the human condition. Pride was a brazen, over-inflation of self that offended God, or so Calvin and others have said. It was the essence of sin and to be avoided at all cost for a healthy spiritual life.
Dr. Jones questions where women—and other marginalized people—fit in this tradition. It is one thing for the most powerful people in society to promote these ideas around pride: perhaps Calvin’s deepest struggle really was this grandiosity of self that he describes. Certainly, many of the preachers I have listened to seem to struggle with pride a great deal, so it makes sense to me that they would define sin in terms of over-inflation of self.
And yet these preachers and theologians are often white heterosexual men with tremendous spiritual authority who are at the top of the power structures in society. Of course they struggle with pride. They are simply reading the Bible and writing their theology out of their lived experience. They are being honest with what they know— they just are not seeing from the vantage points of those not sharing their pedestal. Perhaps they have no idea of the “view from below” or have no sense of what it means to hold the kind of power that they have. (Indeed, they might even deny that a power structure exists, so far are they from understanding marginalization)
So, what happens when all those messages about the sin of “pride” are communicated from a position of power to those who are disempowered and marginalized? What happens when the promoters of this theology are in an entirely different position of status and voice than those “below” them?
Remembering When I First Questioned Pride as Sin
Jones’ writing on this topic helped me make sense of an experience I had years ago. During this time of my life, I was helping at a transition home for abused women, and during one particular Bible study, something became abundantly clear to me: the Christian message I had so often heard about pride being the essence of sin was an irrelevant and harmful message for these women. Their sin was not pride or thinking of themselves too highly. Their sin—if we want to use that language—was not recognizing their own glory.
If human beings are both dust and the image of God, then perhaps we all fall on different sides of the spectrum of not being able to hold these simultaneous truths. Those of us who enjoy a great deal of power might struggle with the traditional Calvinist sense of pride—thinking of ourselves as too godlike. Therefore, we need to be reminded of our dustiness. But others of us actually need to “repent” of having too low an opinion of ourselves and failing to claim our beauty, worth, glory and selfhood. We need to repent of living lives of deference or dismissing our own talents. We need to learn to “take up space” (as my friend Dr. Susan Hall says) and be more bold about who we are.
So, I agree that the article you mentioned about men and women supposedly sinning differently is actually and absolutely about gendered social construction in our churches. I know that as a young woman, when I am driven to lead or make money or be successful or follow my ambitions, I quickly question myself and my “pride.” Just who do I think I am to believe I am capable of such things? I have been socialized differently than men. My gender still makes 76 cents on the dollar; I still struggle with devaluing myself more than I struggle with an over-inflated sense of self.
It is not that I never struggle with pride in the Calvinist sense of the term—certainly I am not immune from grandiosity or selfish ambition. It’s just that what I often am quick to call “pride” or “selfish ambition” is really nothing more than living fully into who I am and using the gifts God has given me.
And so I am not at all surprised that women confess the sin of “pride” more than men. We have been socialized to be suspicious of our desires for success in a way that men have not been socialized. And the tragedy is that because of these suspicions and anxieties, we so often hold back from living out our limitless potential to bless the world (and ourselves) with the fullness of who we are as daughters of God.
More on Lookism and Racism
For the last part of my letter, I want to return to the other important topic of your letter—the harm of lookism, and how that “ism” intersects with other “isms” like sexism and racism.
Wow, those images you linked of the models falling over their stilettos is chilling on so many levels. Their shoes look like they weigh more than their bodies! The short video by Mary Pipher also had some highly disturbing images. More and more, I find myself consciously cringing as I look at the beauty norms for women that are blaring from nearly every magazine, movie, and advertisement. The image is so thin, so white, so cut-off from the reality of women’s beauty and diversity.
Because I tutor many students who are visiting the United States from their home countries, I have heard first-hand the effect of lookism and racism on young teenage girls who cannot fit the prized Western European version of beauty. I once told one of my Korean, 16-year-old students that my sisters had dark eyes and hair like hers and she could not believe it! She wanted me to bring pictures of them. “Before I came here,” she said, “I thought all Americans looked like Britney Spears.” My heart sank with her words.
I listened to her continue to talk about the sexism and racism she experienced that made her doubt her own beauty. One day she even shared with me about the painful plastic surgery that women go through in South Korea to try to look like Caucasian women (giving them rounder eyes or longer legs). I was shocked at how colonialism is still alive and well. Not only does the U.S. fashion and cosmetic industry brainwash American women (and men) to terrible ideas about what is beautiful, but those images are being exported around the world and doing profound harm.
Today I have been reading some powerful essays by African American women who are further articulating the harm of the racist, sexist image of beauty that is pervasive in the culture. Patricia L. Hunter writes the following insightful words in her essay, “Women’s Power-Women’s Passion” (which is a piece in the book A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering, ed. by Emilie Townes):
It is critically important for women of color to believe we are created in the image of God and that we are wonderfully made. We do not have to spend our energies trying to be something we are not or someone else. Women of African descent are beautiful with our larger sizes, intricately curly hair, adequate hips, broad noses, and other distinct features. To try to conform to a European image of beauty is to deny ourselves as being created in the image of God….The billion dollar makeup/make-over/weight loss industry flourishes because most women, including myself, have received messages since we were little girls that something about our physical appearance is not adequate. (page 194)
Layers of Harm
The more I research the fashion and cosmetic industry, the more I see its layers of harm—how it is not only racist, but also often complicit in harming the earth and harming women’s bodies. Just recently, I have been reading the labels on my shampoo, lotion, and makeup and have been shocked to learn of the amount of dangerous chemicals (like parabens and sodium lauryl sulfate) loaded up in these products! I am now on a quest to learn more and find earth friendly, body friendly, fair-trade products. (I am also curious if any of our readers have already done some research on the this topic and know where to buy such products? I would love to hear from you!) I am just starting to realize that not only is the beauty industry trying to exploit me (by selling me such an inhumane image of female beauty), but by buying many of these products, I am also harming myself and exploiting the earth.
It seems that, once again, our conversation around feminism lands us at a vantage point where we can see the matrix of oppressive systems—and hopefully see the muti-faceted nature of hope, too. I have been learning that racism, sexism, and other injustices like the exploitation of the earth are all deeply connected. And healing them is, too.
I appreciate having these conversations, Letha. I have learned so much in our correspondence.